Project Discovery students learn leadership skills on Bike Across America trip

Project Discovery students take their annual Bike Across America tour through the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Project Discovery students take their annual Bike Across America tour through the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Emma Dingle, a rising 10th-grader at Swain County High School, had never flown in an airplane before.

By the time she and the other Project Discovery students returned from their Bike Across America 2016 trip to Colorado, Dingle had a long list of firsts, which included touching the Rio Grande River and having a snowball fight in June.

“It was a very good trip,” Dingle said. “I should’ve kept a list of everything.”

Dingle was one of five Project Discovery students from Madison, Swain, Jackson and Cherokee counties who made the trip. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and hosted by Western Carolina University.

The students biked more than 300 miles in the Colorado Rocky Mountains on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. They returned from the 13-day trip Thursday, July 7.

“I think they did great,” said project director Todd Murdock. “I was proud to ride with them.”

The section of the route Murdock chose to ride began in Silverthorne, Colorado, and ended in Platoro, Colorado. It featured several 4 a.m. wakeup calls before riding some 50-mile stretches, or climbing elevations as high as 11,542 feet at Hoosier Pass.

The students quickly learned the difference between riding in the Smoky Mountains and the Rocky Mountains.

“Biking in Colorado made me appreciate new mountains for their beauty and size,” said Gabe Mosteller, who graduated from Andrews High School in June and will be attending Tri-County Community College this fall.

“I feel like around here, you can predict the terrain a lot,” said Dustin Leo, a rising 10th-grader at Swain County High School. “Either you’re going to be climbing slowly through a mountain pass or you’re riding flat. Out there, you climb, climb, climb for like two hours and you keep expecting the next turn to be the top and it wouldn’t be.”

The longest one-day ride was 55 miles, while some days were shorter in miles but longer in hours because of the elevation climbs. Hoosier Pass proved to be the most challenging stretch, featuring a climb of just over 4,000 feet in 15 miles, Murdock said.

The trip also featured a learning component that taught the students about leadership. Every night, a “leader of the day” was chosen for the next day.

“To read and understand the group is what I learned when I was leader of the day,” Mosteller said. “It’s not just being the leader and telling everybody what to do. It’s more of focusing on how to understand the group.”

“I feel like we learned a lot about group dynamics and how a group actually works,” Leo said. “We learned a lot of different systems that help identify how a group is ready and how to adapt to group readiness. When we had to do our own leader of the day tasks, it really helped a lot to understand how to move the group forward.”

The trip also provided students with lasting memories.

“I’ll remember the views,” Dingle said. “For example, at the top of Hoosier Pass it looked like ‘The Sound of Music,’ the introductory shot. Also, a bunch of other views looked really beautiful, too.”

For Mosteller, it was the time they spent together during rainy dinners. “We’d sit there and just cook a big pot of Ramen noodles and play speed Scrabble and tell riddles and try and figure the world out because you had nothing better to do. It was rainy, and we couldn’t walk around. We couldn’t play Frisbee. We couldn’t do anything but commune.”

Other students who went on the trip were Griffin Murdock, a home-schooled student, and Josh Yontz of Madison High School.

For more information about Project Discovery, visit